The Perfect Ghost
By Linda Barnes
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2013 Linda Barnes
All rights reserved.
Teddy, you would have been proud of me.
I left home on my own, and not just to pace up and down Bay State Road like a restless feline, either. I made arrangements online, but I physically climbed into a puke-stinking cab, pinched my nose during the ride to South Station, and raced onboard the 9:50 Acela. I almost bailed at New Haven because I was terrified, because my Old Haven no longer existed, because it sounded so damned hopeful: "Five minutes to New Haven, exit on your right." I squeezed my eyelids shut and resisted the impulse to flee. Instead, I thought about you. I conjured you. I imagined talking to you, telling you about the strangers on the train.
There was a snooty woman, tall, imperious, cradling a full-length fur, patting her mink absentmindedly, as if it were a friendly dog. Two teen lovers, a Celtic cross tattooed on her neck, a too-big-to-be-a-diamond stud in his right ear, entertained their fellow passengers by crawling into each other's laps. A bald man with a hawk nose trumpeted his importance into his iPhone.
Something makes people want to confide in me, no matter how hard I stare at my book. I wish I knew what it was so I could change it. When the businessman abandoned his cell and adjusted the knot in his tie, I had the feeling he was going to start complaining at me, like I was his secretary or his wife, and then just in time I remembered the quiet car. Really, Teddy, it was like you whispered in my ear, Em, go sit in the quiet car. I shot to my feet as though the engineer had electrified my seat, lurched down the aisle, and found a place among the blessed book-readers and stretched-out sleepers where I collapsed and breathed until the pulse stopped throbbing in my ears.
I considered swallowing a Xanax, but as I stared out the gray-tinted window at the passing shoreline, I got a better idea: I could pretend there were thick glass windows between me and the crowds, a bulletproof tunnel running straight to Henniman's. I could keep myself mentally separate, isolated and alone. I could figuratively stay on the train and lock everyone else outside, and I wouldn't open the door for anyone but Jonathan.
When an elderly woman peered at me over her rimless reading glasses and smiled encouragingly, I let my face go blank, willing her to turn away, to not mistake me for some friend's college-bound daughter in need of a comforting pat. I must have looked desperate, stricken, agonized in spite of my careful preparation. You can't imagine how much time I spent modeling outfits in the mirror, changing my mind about this scarf, that pocketbook, these pants, this sweater, before winding up in a sophisticated version of what you called my uniform: ink-black jeans and a wheat-colored edition of my usual V-necked T-shirt. At the last minute I added a black suit jacket because everyone in Manhattan wears one. Simple gold jewelry: a necklace and a ring. All those wasted hours and I still screwed up the shoes. I made a mistake and chose the heels you once jokingly termed my "power shoes."
At the time, I figured I'd take a cab from Penn Station to Henniman's. But I was early. When have I not been early? I roamed the station for eighteen minutes, but they kept making scary announcements over the PA. Watch for suspicious persons, abandoned parcels, don't leave your luggage unattended. The lights were bright and hot, and the air reeked of rotting pizza with a hint of urine underneath. A seedy-looking man focused hollow eyes on my pocketbook, sizing me up for a mugging, so I made the snap decision to walk. I visualized a dot on a map: me. The dot would slide smoothly from Penn Station to the meeting with Jonathan.
I erected my imaginary tunnel and under its protective shell sped crosstown to Fifth Avenue, silently reciting sonnets to counter the boom-and-thud construction noise, the screeching traffic. Shakespearean iambs moved my feet, and the map-dot made steady progress until I reached the corner of Fifth. There, despite the simplicity of the directions, I halted, confused. Right or left? Shaken, I almost panicked. My breathing shifted into second gear, but I knew the numbered cross streets would inform me if I erred. I turned right, which proved correct, and then I simply had to scoot down to the Twenties, which would have been fine except for the shoes.
Never look like you need the money when you go in for a loan. That's what I thought when I tried them on in front of the mirror. New and expensive, practically unworn, they seemed glamorous and carefree, but how can you look carefree if your toes are getting squeezed in a vise?
I was hopelessly early. Twenty-two minutes. So I detoured, backtracking up Fifth, bypassing the library because the stairs seemed too steep a challenge, taking refuge in Saks, pushing through the heavy door, thinking I could stand there motionless without attracting notice, flexing my toes and inhaling the overly perfumed cosmetics-counter air. I checked myself in the mirror over the Guerlain counter, and really, I could have been someone else, any one of the young professional women in their late twenties who milled about the store. I looked unruffled, as serene as a Madonna in a painting.
I didn't want to be early, Teddy. Early is so desperate. And that couch in the glass reception cage? It would have been like trying to relax on the rack while the hooded torturers elbowed one another and rubbed their sweaty palms together in anticipatory glee. I was picturing their evil grins when a frozen-faced saleslady showed her teeth and asked if she could help me.
Jesus, Teddy, the days I waited for someone to say that. The years. Can I help you? And when exactly was it that "Can I help you?" started to mean "Can I sell you something?" When was the last time anyone genuinely wanted to help me? Help as in aid, as in succor, as in give sustenance?
I could have moved into scarves or hats or shoes. Shoes would have been best. I could have sat in a cushy chair, removed those awful blister-makers, and wriggled my achy toes. But I felt forced outside into the cold.
I joined the downtown parade, marching behind a man in a leather blazer chatting loudly into his cell. Each cross street thundered with traffic, pedestrian and automotive. Plunging into intersections, I felt like a chipmunk darting under the carriage of an eighteen-wheeler. I wondered if the leather blazer–clad man was talking to his wife or his lover, if the woman was telling him she loved him or hated him, if he'd continue the rest of the day in lockstep or if something he learned during that particular conversation would shatter and spin him around, alter his life and change his path. Irrevocably, the way mine had changed.
I walked right past the Flatiron Building, herded by the press of pedestrians, afraid to stop for fear of getting trampled. Where were all these purposeful souls headed? Were they late, afraid that if they paused and lifted their eyes to the murky sky, they'd stop, paralyzed by fear and uncertainty, dismount their painted carousel horses, collapse on the bare pavement, and howl?
I worked my way to a corner and turned left onto a calmer cross street. I stepped into an alcove and watched the slow drip of water off an awning. My clothes felt too tight. I needed to pee. I should have used the restroom at Saks. It was time to meet Jonathan. I backtracked and opened the door, signed my name on the list. The guard glanced at my wavering signature with an expressionless face. I added the time in the provided space, and he nodded me toward the elevators.
I was one of twenty waiting in the lobby. I couldn't bring myself to squeeze into the first elevator, and the second took its own sweet time. I pressed my lips together and thought, Relax, nobody cares if you're a little late, but my body didn't hear me. I looked for the stairs, but I didn't have time for twelve flights. It would have to be the box.
The elevator stopped at every floor. Pause for the doors to part, wait for strangers to shuffle in and out. Wait, wait, wait for the doors to close again, then hover, hang, while the mechanism debated whether to rise or drop. During the slow-motion endurance test, I ran through the upcoming scene: You'll see Jonathan, you'll shake hands. I wiped a damp palm on the thigh of my pants. You'll see him, you'll shake hands.
The new receptionist looked like a replica of the old receptionist: young, remote, plastic. I gave my name, and she invited me to take a seat on the agony couch. I stood by the bookshelf instead, pretending to read the titles of upcoming releases.
The latest as-told-to T. E. Blakemore, front and center, was well displayed. The cover credit, long sought, was no more than our hard-won due, and it took an effort to keep my hands from paging to the inside back flap and staring at your photograph. You were such a splendid public face for us. So charming and witty, so quick with a clever remark. I didn't need to open the book to see you. Remember? Such a bitterly cold day, and I wanted the frozen Charles River in the background? I wanted that glint in your eye, that devil-may-care smile, tousled hair, craggy face. The wind snatched your hat off.
"Em? Are you okay?"
Jonathan, starched white shirt, navy suit pants belted too high, tie slightly off center, stood in front of me and I had no idea how long he'd been there. He looked exactly like the editor he was, the indoor pallor, the wire-rimmed glasses, the narrow, stooped shoulders. His right arm was extended as though he'd stuck it out for a handshake and gotten no response.
"Bring us some water, please," he ordered the receptionist. "We'll be in my office." He placed a hand between my shoulder blades and propelled me down the hallway. "You're not going to faint, are you?"
I told him I was all right.
"You did faint," he said accusingly. "Once."
I concentrated on the rush of air entering and leaving my nostrils. It started, anyway, the rapid heartbeat, the sudden feeling of suffocation. The mind knows no end of dread, and if it does, the body takes over.
But, Teddy, I didn't faint.
I didn't handle it perfectly. Jonathan asked if I needed a paper bag to breathe into, so I was far from perfect, but I perched on a chair and composed myself and asked Jonathan how he was doing.
He admitted he was fine while gazing at me as though I might detonate my bomb-vest. The door burst open, and the receptionist thrust two bottles of Poland Spring into his outstretched hands.
The water slid down my throat, deliciously icy, while he asked about Marcy, whether she was coming to the meeting. When I told him it would just be me, he said he wasn't disappointed, au contraire, he was delighted. Trying to be gallant, but I could see how uncomfortable he was. And I thought I could use that to my advantage. You know how good I am at staying quiet. He squirmed, then managed a weak smile and asked what he could do for me.
I didn't answer.
"I hope you're not worried about the advance. It's a heartless business, all right, but nobody's going to give you any trouble."
"Jonathan," I said, "listen to me. You can't cancel this book."
The words spoken; the battle joined.
He pushed back his chair, stood, and took three steps to the window, where he fussed with the angle of the blinds. He had a good view; a tiny closet of an office, but a glorious panorama of rooftops.
"I'll finish the book," I said. "I know: Teddy's not here — but I can do it. You can put it out as a Blakemore, or you can use my name alone — whichever works for you."
He kept his focus on the sky, as though waiting for a fireworks display. "I don't know that we can go along with that."
The royal we. The evasive, weaseling we. As if it weren't Jonathan himself who had stabbed me through the heart. As if he hadn't cast his vote of no confidence.
He returned to his desk and lowered himself into his chair. "I'm sure when you think things over, you'll realize it's for the best. You must be completely overwhelmed. Distraught." If I hadn't frozen him with my eyes, he might have leaned over and patted my hand.
"Teddy and I were colleagues," I said. "Colleagues. Not lovers."
"I thought —"
"A lot of people thought." My throat dried up, and I took a hasty swig of Poland Spring.
"Don't get yourself in a snit about repaying the advance right away. Take your time. We all know that —"
"Time is what I need. Time to finish the book."
"Em, we've been over this —"
"Jonathan, what do you imagine my role was in the partnership?"
"I'm sure you did all —"
"I wrote the last book. Every word in it is mine."
"Teddy's reputation sold this project. You know that. Garrett Malcolm could have had anybody. He asked for Teddy."
"Teddy? Or T. E?"
He glared at me like I was parsing him too closely, nitpicking.
"Jonathan. I'm the E. I'm the Moore."
"You don't handle the interviews."
"I can manage the rest of the interviews," I said, and the minute I said it, Teddy, I knew I could do it. "There aren't that many. I have all Teddy's tapes. He was almost done when ..." I swallowed. "I have entire chapters of a finished manuscript. The early years are complete."
"I have a contract."
Jonathan took some time unscrewing the cap on his bottled water. "The contract is an agreement with the two of you as the single legal entity T. E. Blakemore."
"You could make it happen, Jonathan."
"Malcolm can't delay. He's got other commitments."
"Can't or won't?"
"When you're Garrett Malcolm, it doesn't much matter, does it?"
"It's basically follow-up now. A few meetings."
"He liked Teddy."
"Everyone liked Teddy."
Jonathan wasn't expecting me to agree with him. It threw off his timing. He fidgeted, then addressed himself to his desk blotter. "Malcolm won't like working with a woman."
"Jonathan, that's exactly why I didn't bring Marcy in on this. I didn't want her to threaten you with a discrimination lawsuit." The thought had truly never entered my head; it was like my tongue was talking without me.
"It's that he's had bad luck with ... I didn't mean —" He sputtered to a halt.
I knew I had him worried, that I'd somehow grabbed his attention, made him reconsider. "There would be a great deal of public sympathy for my position."
"The project can't be late."
"Why not? It's not like Malcolm's in the news every day. He's an icon. He'll still be an icon."
"You're serious about this."
He gave me a careful once-over; I tried to look like a woman who'd never fainted in her life.
"What about the other interviews?" he asked. "Not the sessions with Malcolm. The prepublication interviews, the media, the talk shows?"
I gave him my best smile. "What Teddy used to say: 'We'll burn that bridge when we come to it.'"
He tapped his fingers on his desk, swiveled his chair, sipped his drink. "Malcolm won't like it."
"But he'll agree to it. He'll agree if you tell him it will be fine, that the book will be everything it would have been if Teddy were still here. He trusts you, Jonathan."
He stared at his hands. "I don't know."
"I need this book, Jonathan. That's my bottom line. If you go after the advance, I'll fight you every step of the way."
"Em, I have to say I'm surprised." He raised his eyebrows and looked at me as though he were seeing me for the first time.
"I'll fight. I want you to be clear on that." My heart was racing, pounding like it was trying to jump out of my chest.
His tongue edged between his teeth. "I'll have to talk to some people."
"You do that."
"And Malcolm will have to agree to give you access."
"I'm sure you can manage that, Jonathan. He signed the contract, too."
I watched as Jonathan carefully balanced the pluses and minuses, the possibility of another bestseller, the threat of a lawsuit, the difficulty of dealing with a woman who might faint.
"I'll see what I can do," he said finally.
"I won't keep you then." Terrified my knees would buckle at each rapid step, I made it down the corridor, onto the turtle-slow elevator, all the way outside and around the corner before I collapsed on a concrete planter, drawing deep heaving breaths.
It hadn't gone that badly; it hadn't gone terribly wrong. He hadn't refused me. A passing jogger smiled, and I raised my face to the sun. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Perfect Ghost by Linda Barnes. Copyright © 2013 Linda Barnes. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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